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Recap: ‘Big Little Lies’ Blows Open Nearly All its Marriages, Mother-Daughter Relationships, and Secrets in Episode 2, ‘Tell-Tale Hearts’

By Roxana Hadadi | TV | June 17, 2019 |

By Roxana Hadadi | TV | June 17, 2019 |


What is a family? We’ve followed the Monterey Five and their children (and, if applicable, their husbands) for over a season, but this episode gives us the clearest idea of what these women prioritize when it comes to how they act as mothers and as daughters. Someone goes to jail! Another husband walks out! MARY LOUISE PERRY finds out that her son was a rapist and an abuser, and immediately discounts her daughter-in-law Celeste’s version of events! Shit gets real in “Tell-Tale Hearts”!

Celeste’s greatest fear is for her sons to end up like her husband, who mother-in-law Mary Louise continues to worship. (If Extremely Fucking Awful Boomer Mom Mary Louise doesn’t sail up there next to Joffrey Baratheon as your most-hated HBO villain after this episode, I’m not sure what you’re doing.) After the exposure of two secrets, including that of her infidelity, Madeline realizes that her carefully curated life is crumbling around her. Jane decides to finally be honest with her son Ziggy about his father, even if it causes a fracture between herself and Celeste.


And we finally get a fuller idea of who Bonnie is, where she came from, and how she considers herself. It would be easy to brush Bonnie off as a nature-obsessed hippie—or as a drug addict, as Madeline offensively asks her when she and Celeste find Bonnie hiking early in the morning—but her refusal to accept her mother Elizabeth’s (Crystal Fox) crystals, and her disinterest in her mother’s talk about visions, and her scoffing at the idea that nature alone could cure her suggest that who we’ve thought Bonnie is might not at all be her reality. The first season suggested Bonnie was one of the only authentic women in this group; how much does her relationship with her mother puncture that?

“Tell-Tale Hearts” begins with a moment of lost time: Celeste took a sleeping pill, got in her car, and drove off into the night, crashing her car and calling Madeline for help. When they return to Celeste’s home, we get another altercation between Mary Louise and Madeline, during which Meryl Streep does this impossibly wonderful and bizarre thing with her cross necklace while also basically telling Madeline to go fuck herself. It is excellent, and yet what I can’t stop thinking about is Reese Witherspoon’s extremely sarcastic shrug:


Who knew Reese even had it in her to be that condescending! But while Madeline can walk away from Mary Louise, she’s the one left behind later in the episode when Ed learns that not only has his wife lied to him for months about Perry Wright being Ziggy’s father, but also that, oh yeah, Madeline had an affair last year. Whoops! Adam Scott’s Ed has become increasingly self-assured this season when paired with Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan, and we see more of that determination come out in his decision to leave Madeline. From their final conversation:

Madeline: “I cannot fathom what I’ve done … it’s about me. It’s about us.”
Ed: “What’s ‘us’? I think we’re done.”

Madeline’s crushed face is one of the few times we’ve seen genuine sadness from that character—not anger, like her yelling at Abigail last week about college and the homeless, and not shock, like when Perry died. What Madeline seems to experience in this moment is a realization of crushing loneliness, and that links her, of course, with all the other women. With Bonnie, who is so closed-off from her family that her daughter asks if her parents are getting a divorce. With Renata, who learns that her good-for-nothing husband Gordon Klein (Jeffrey Nordling) leveraged their entire fortune; he could be going to jail for fraud, and Renata could be broke, even though she knew nothing about his shadiness. Please give Laura Dern awards for these moments:



That same loneliness goes for Jane, who is growing closer to that guy from the aquarium (there is certainly affection in how she says of him, “You’re very strange”) but who realizes that the months Ziggy knew about the identity of his father meant they were both lying to each other. Her explaining “assault” rather than “salt” to her young son was devastating. And this leads us, finally, to Celeste, who can’t connect with either her sons or her mother-in-law. The boys are increasingly rude and increasingly violent, and they miss their father, but Celeste hasn’t told them the truth about who he was. Instead, she calls Perry “a wonderful person, a beautiful person,” and although she acknowledges that “he could be weak … and he could make mistakes,” the impression she continues to leave for the twins is that their father was a good man.


Does that sort of unquestionable devotion let little boys grow up to be Perry Wright? It certainly seems like it, since Mary Louise is thoroughly reprehensible when Celeste tries to tell her who her son was. Her look of disgust when Celeste haltingly talks about their sex life; her continued insistence that Perry’s rape of Jane might have been “an alleged affair” instead of sexual assault; her attempt to pin Perry’s death on Celeste. Every single thing Mary Louise says feels thematically linked to her son’s gaslighting of Celeste: Her “Aren’t you desperate for her to be wrong?”, as if it’s Celeste’s fault that she believed her friend; her “I don’t believe you,” flat and dismissive and leaving no room for conversation; her “Why didn’t you go to the police?”, as if Celeste as a victim needed to act perfectly while her abusive husband did whatever he wanted. For all this episode’s talk about family, I think Mary Louise Wright is the character who shows us most distinctly what her idea of family is: unquestioned devotion, a misogynist preference, an unwillingness to consider another person’s truth. Bonnie is concerned that the “lie” will get them all, but I would be more considered about Mary Louise.


+ I love Madeline’s “That woman’s not well” about Bonnie, as if she wasn’t hiding secrets from her husband and obviously compartmentalizing like a motherfucker to get through all the deception.

+ Some more solid song choices this episode: Aside from some Elle King, Jimmy Ruffin, and a reprise of Conor O’Brien’s version of “The Wonder of You” (which Ed performed as Elvis during the first season finale), we also get another Sufjan Stevens jam, the instrumental “Redford,” plays as Ziggy and the Wright twins officially meet each other as half-brothers, and Celeste’s morning drive is set to Neil Young’s “Down by the River.” Remember that last season, when Perry asked Celeste to dance with him, it was to Young’s “Harvest Moon,” which Emily Blunt and John Krasinski’s characters also danced to in A Quiet Place.

+ “What kind of an emergency?” “The kind short people have.”

+ Every single Mary Louise story is tedious and shows more of her ass, and I look forward to many more of them as the season progresses.

+ There are three moments that so perfectly describe the Wright family that they have to be considered together: The flashback to a Perry and Celeste date, when he learns that she’s distanced from her family (“Now I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but if this works out … I would have you all to myself”); when Celeste tells Mary Louise about Madeline saving Max from drowning, and Mary Louise immediately turning the story around to accuse Celeste of being a bad mother (“Really? Huh. Where were you?”); and when Celeste talks to her sons about openness and honesty, and Max replies, “I don’t think we’re that kind of family.” So many secrets and so many lies, all in one house.


+ So, what in Bonnie’s history is her mother alluding to when she says “What have you done this time?” Elizabeth is clearly one of the people who knows Bonnie best (“We all know how fond you are of your walls”), but she has her own baggage—a history with drinking, all that talk about crystals and visions. But she is intuitive enough to realize there’s “something in the air, Bonnie,” and I wonder how much her dislike of who Bonnie has become will drive her to find out what happened that night Perry died.

+ Let’s end with Renata, shall we, and two more perfect lines of dialogue for her this episode: “I used to like to sit on your face, too, you think that’s gonna happen again?” (!!!) and “Will somebody give a woman a moment?” (!!!!!). Renata’s very herself-focused brand of feminism is thoroughly hilarious and sort of abhorrent and I love it.

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Roxana Hadadi is a Senior Editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.

Image sources (in order of posting): HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations